Pixies – 10 of the best

Sample the band’s Samson and Delilah for the stoner college crowd, spectral lyrics of bizarre bodily physics, and emotionally tense alien road-traffic accidents

1. I’ve Been Tired

In retrospect it’s a miracle that Black Francis, Pixies’ own Dr Jekyll, made it through the entrance interview for the band’s collegiate cradle – the University of Massachusetts Amherst – without the authorities being alerted. After all, it takes his leftwing backpacker date in I’ve Been Tired – a febrile highlight of the eight songs chosen from their demo The Purple Tape to make up their debut mini-album Come on Pilgrim (1987) – just a couple of warm-up questions and a quick earlobe lick before his twisted psychological peccadillos start to slip out. His biggest fear? “Losing my penis to a whore with disease,” he admits, before realising he’d said that out loud and correcting himself: “Just kidding … losing my life to a whore with disease.” Here were all the raw materials destined to make Pixies America’s greatest proto-grunge alt-rock pioneers – cranky, lo-fi, art-pop, student-friendly babble about exotic travel and grotesque sex (who has “breasts like a cluster of grapes”? Was he dating oversized insects?), and Frank losing his lithium and going melodically demented in the chorus. The sound of new wave gone postal on prom night, it marked Pixies as an uncatalogued new species of rock, but one that would soon spread its spores wide.

2. The Holiday Song

If Pixies dropped into 1987 like a creature from space – all bristling spikes, undulating undercoat, pleasing purrs and teeth-baring acid sprays – it’s largely because Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV was a squirming sack of influences: surf rock, 60s folk, US post-punk, evangelist Christianity, ELP, anthropology, ancient mythology and six months spent living with a “psycho roommate” in Puerto Rico. Somehow all of this (except ELP) cohered in The Holiday Song, Come on Pilgrim’s companion piece to Here Comes Your Man. Frantic, flamenco-tinted surf-pop hysteria about Biblical incest, it was essentially the Monkees with rabies and the perfect song to play around the beach campfire after a long day catching waves, just as the batch of brown acid kicks in.

3. Gigantic

Kim Deal – or Mrs John Murphy, as she was credited for the band’s first two albums, as an ironic feminist joke – only joined Pixies because she was the sole respondent to an advert seeking a bass player who was into both Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü. Her impact on Pixies’ sound and aesthetic was monumental. She became the croaky, collegiate fem-foil to Black Francis’ barking mania, the beauty to his beast, and set them softly apart from the gnarled US post-punk herd with unfussy pop basslines that were just as memorable as Francis’ rabid vocals or Joey Santiago’s wildcat guitars. Exhibit A: Gigantic, the band’s first single, which Deal co-wrote with Francis and the best example of their brimstone-and-treacle dichotomy. Inspired by the interracial relationship of 1986 black comedy Crimes of the Heart, Deal cooed her sweet voyeuristic romance (“What a gas it was to see him walk her every day into a shady place … he’s like the dark, but I’d want him”) over a stark, infectious bassline while her bandmates lay quietly in wait, ready to crush the song into the wall, mid-fumble, with euphoric slams of wrecking ball indie rock. Plus it came with a chorus designed to tickle the Julian Clary in us all.

4. Where Is My Mind?

Best known as the song that demolished a bank of skyscrapers at the end of the film Fight Club, Where Is My Mind? is an odd cove of a Pixies tune. A beatific ballad at the heart of an otherwise frenzied album, Surfer Rosa (1988), it stood out not only because it didn’t sound like Black Francis was tearing apart a deer carcass with his teeth throughout, but for Kim’s spectral “Ooo-ooooh”s and its lyrics of bizarre bodily physics. Would spinning on your head really make your skull implode if you had no brain, and if so, why aren’t more breakdancing contests absolute bloodbaths? This mingling of comic and cosmic has made the song an alt-rock mainstay, the most lickable Pixies track.

5. Gouge Away

“It’s dumbo dynamics,” Francis said of Pixies’ trademark modus operandi in 1991. “We don’t know how to do anything else. We can play loud or quiet – that’s it.” It was a formula – soon to be emulated by certain leading grunge lights to generation-defining effect – that they’d made their own by the arrival of Doolittle (1989), and Gouge Away was the archetypal example. Hushed choruses of simmering violence, interspersed with verses of roaring release that retooled the story of Samson and Delilah for the stoner college crowd, its dumbo dynamics really flew.

6. Tame

Loud-quiet to the extreme, Tame was Pixies’ essence on full boil. Doolittle’s most unhinged two minutes, it came on like a werewolf attack, Francis sounding like a murderous stalker crouched in a dark alleyway behind some Boston punk club slavering under his breath about a girl with “hips like Cinderella … shaking your good frame”. Then, feral and howling, he pounced, disembowelling the chorus like some kind of visceral post-punk slasher scene. Tame was as wild as music comes, the equivalent, if you like, of a James Bay song called Innovative or a Lars von Trier film titled Blink and You’ll Miss It.

7. Monkey Gone to Heaven

A doomy vision of fantastical eco-apocalypse – “an underwater god who controls the sea … got killed by 10-million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey” – Monkey Gone to Heaven intoned its way into indie legend with its ominous bass, brooding strings and chords clanging like a brutal sacrifice. Muzzling his inner hyena to allow for an even more menacing tone, Black Francis bestrode the track like an evil mystic summoning demons with ancient numerical incantations: “If man is five then the devil is six,” he howled, more terrifying than any metal gurner, and when it hit The Chart Show’s indie chart it looked for all the world like a party political broadcast on behalf of a hypnotic death cult you had no choice but to hand over your worldly goods to, while offering thanks for your thrashings.

8. Here Comes Your Man

One of the very first songs Thompson wrote, way back in his teens, and easily the poppiest Pixies song, it took three albums for Here Comes Your Man to emerge from The Purple Tape, presumably because it was just so nice. Pixies’ equivalent of Shiny Happy People, its jaunty simplicity and sunny disposition would have wrinkled the nose of their unhinged early clattersound. You couldn’t imagine it nuzzling up to Something Against You on Surfer Rosa or Nimrod’s Son on Come on Pilgrim, but on the dour and demonic first half of Doolittle it was a welcome ray of sunshine. It sounded like Pixies holding hands with REM and bomb-diving into the mainstream together, and the band’s awkward relationship with it endures to their recent tours, where it was accompanied by video of the foursome listening to the track on headphones while nodding, shrugging and grimacing. Relax, Pixies, even at your most ringtone-friendly, you rocked.

9. Motorway to Roswell

Somewhere in the space between the notoriously strained Fuck or Fight tour of 1989 and their return with Bossanova in 1990, Francis turned his thematic gaze from classical to cosmic. Gory Biblical myths were discarded in favour of slick sci-fi stargazing, and by the following year’s scorched, metallic Trompe le Monde, Francis had been abducted into the alien’s perspective altogether. Now he was swooping into Martian volcano craters on Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons, scouring the universe for party music on Planet of Sound or imagining a Sirian bro barbecue on some desolate rock on Distance Equals Rate Times Time – “we got to get some beer, we got no atmosphere, from looking into the sun”. Best of all, Motorway to Roswell was a stirring hero’s anthem honouring the brave scout pilot of Nibiru whose ship “sparked as he turned to graze our city” and (very much allegedly) crashed at Roswell: “He ended up in army crates and photographs in files.” As it grew towards a grandiose, cinematic finale with Francis wailing “he started heading for the motorway” as the damaged craft descended, you willed the poor green blighter to make a textbook emergency landing. It saw Pixies’ often claustrophobic sound expand like a sunburst, formed a worthy swansong to their first era and should probably win some kind of George Clinton award for advancing awareness of alien rights.

10. Greens and Blues

Twenty-three years later, Frank was still off with the fairies, freaks and spacemen. Pixies’ reunion album Indie Cindy – to these ears a worthy middle-aged descendant of Bossanova and Trompe le Monde – had him lusting over witches (Blue Eyed Hexe), androids (Andro Queen) and women who apparently live in asteroid belts (Magdalena 318). A fresh fascination with the mysteries of the deep emerged too; Another Toe in the Ocean explored undersea elf grottoes and name-checked Blackbeard, while the album’s stand-out track Greens and Blues was more Man from Atlantis. “I said I’m human but you know I lied, I’m only visiting this shore,” Francis lilted over a military pop march recalling classic Pixies bellowers like Motorway to Roswell and Velouria, “I’ll leave you alone, fade from your mind, slip into the greens and blues”. A polite visiting sea monster perhaps, or was there a deeper comment on mankind’s social and ecological self-destruction at work? “My bits all wander in the trees,” the visitor tells us, as if they’re the personification of evolution waving goodbye to its most spectacular success story, hoping for a less carbon-guzzling and fighty strain next time. A sign that fundamental human issues remain at the core of Pixies’ sci-fi phantasmagoria.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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